SEOUL — Findings from a report by the U.S. military spy agency suggest North Korea could be capable of launching a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.
The Pentagon and South Korea’s defense ministry have cast strong doubts on the assessment, which adds to the general uncertainty surrounding Pyongyang’s secretive nuclear weapons program.
WHAT DO WE KNOW FOR SURE?
Not a great deal. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013. The 2013 underground test was by far the most powerful. But the radioactive fallout was well contained, frustrating intense efforts by U.S., South Korean and Japanese monitors to learn more about the nature of the detonation. Numerous experts believe it may have been a uranium bomb, rather than a plutonium device as used in the previous two tests.
North Korea has successfully tested only one medium-range ballistic missile, the Rodong-1, with a range of 1,300 kilometers (800 miles). In 1998, it launched a Taepodong-1 (2,500 kilometers) over Japan, but the third stage apparently exploded. A Taepodong-2 (6,700 kilometers) was tested in 2006 but blew up after 40 seconds. In December, the North successfully put a satellite into orbit with its Unha-3 long-range rocket.
WHAT DOES NORTH KOREA CLAIM?
A great deal. The North Korean military says it already has an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability and can accurately deliver a nuclear warhead to targets as far away as the continental United States. Pyongyang said the February 2013 test was of a “miniaturized” device and added that it now had a “diversified” weapons capability — suggesting both uranium and plutonium bombs.
WHAT IS THE EXPERT CONSENSUS?
Mixed. Nearly all experts agree that, despite the Unha-3 launch, North Korea is years from developing a genuine ICBM capability. The issue of miniaturization is more debated. A few experts believe Pyongyang may have already mastered this technique, but the majority believe it would require one, or maybe two more nuclear tests to develop a working warhead that could fit on a missile.
Delivery system capability is highly speculative. Even at the mid-range level, the North’s ballistic missile record is extremely shaky. The Unha-3 launch demonstrated its mastery off propulsion issues, but there are still large questions regarding accuracy and reliability.